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I just didn’t know if it would work.

Audrey brought me out into the main room filled with cafeteria-style tables that were low to the ground, with equally tiny chairs surrounding them. “We feed them both breakfast and lunch plus two snacks. The rooms are arranged by age. Babies in one. One year old in another, and so-on…” Audrey kept talking but when I spotted Max only feet from where I stood, I faked interest in the bulletin board hanging above the table she was sitting at.

“That’s our activities board,” Audrey said, coming up to stand bedside me. “That’s the schedule of music time, numbers time…” Her voice faded into the background when another one chimed in.

“You’re really pwetty,” sang a small sweet voice. I looked down into familiar bright green eyes that literally took my breath away. They were the same color as his, but where King’s eyes held the harsh and bitter reality of the life he’d lived, hers were void of any contempt and alive with innocence.

I knelt down next to her. “Thank you. You are too,” I said. She giggled, her little tiny square teeth reminded me of Sammy. She chewed on her fingertips.

“I like dis,” Max said, reaching out to touch a bracelet I’d put on that morning, in an effort to look more like the Ray Price in the framed pictures in my room.

I pointed to the tiny purple plastic bracelet on her little wrist. “I like yours even better.”

Audrey cleared her throat. “I’d like to show you to the playground. It’s modernized and we firmly believe in at least thirty minutes of physical activity a day as long as it’s not hotter than the surface of the sun outside.”

“I have to go,” I told Max, who hung her head in disappointment. “But I’m sure I’ll see you again,” I whispered, she lifted her head and her father’s eyes met mine. It hurt my heart, but I had to rip my gaze from hers so that I wouldn’t lose it right there in front of Audrey and the thirty or so toddlers in the room.

I stood to leave, but a tiny hand wrapped around one of my fingers and tugged. “Here,” Max, whispered. She took off the purple plastic bracelet and put it around my wrist.

My heart exploded in a flurry of warmth.

Love at first sight was not something reserved for lovers, because that day I’d truly experienced it. In the span of three minutes, I’d lost my heart all over again.

I didn’t want to leave her. I wanted to pick her up and run as fast as I could out of the buzzing door and take her and Sammy back to the house on stilts.

First things first, I told myself.

I unclasped the silver and gold roped bracelet from around my wrist. I knelt down again, and with my back to Audrey, I carefully looped the delicate chain around Max’s little wrist, twice.

I didn’t stay to see her reaction to my gift; afraid that if I spent one more second with her I wouldn’t be able to walk out the door.

I stood and turned back around to Audrey, hoping she wouldn’t notice the sudden pain in my voice or tears in my eye. “Now show me this wonderful playground,” I said, with a sniffle.

Audrey continued her tour and as I followed her I felt the gaze of a pair of beautiful green eyes on my back as I walked out the door and into the blinding light of day.

Chapter Sixteen

Doe

When I told my father that King was dead, his only concern was how the hell he’d gotten out of prison in the first place. I didn’t have the time or energy to explain what had really happened, because what I really wanted was his help. “I want to adopt King’s daughter,” I told him, standing in front of his desk while he clicked away on his computer.

The senator rolled his eyes. “You’re a teenager with no source of income. The court isn’t exactly going to look upon you favorably for an adoption,” he’d told me, clicking away at the keyboard on his computer.

“You said you know the judge. You can put a word in,” I stated.

“Yes, that I can do. But that’s just a recommendation, Ramie. Even with a favor from the judge you’re still going to have to follow proper procedure. Being a single woman is not looked upon as being a favorable applicant.”

“Then I’ll fix that.”

*     *     *

“It will increase my chances of being able to adopt her,” I finished. I was sitting on Tanner’s couch in the pool house while Sammy watched TV, wrapped up in his favorite blanket on the floor. Every so often he would look back at me, and after seeing that I was still there, he’d smile and turn back to Elmo.

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